The Blue Raccoon

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Annual Fire Ball Gala!

Saturday, March 29, 7 PM at The Firehouse Theatre!

Do you the HOTTEST Ticket to the COOLEST Party in Town?

If your answer is YES, then we know you are busy assembling your outfit, determining your high bid, and kicking back as you anticipate the multitudes of pleasures that await!

If your answer is:
A. Not yet
B. I've been planning to, but...
C. I will, soon!
What's the holdup? Get on the stick! Click on the ticket purchase link; click directly on the link; do not pass GO, do not collect $200!
Got it? Good!

But if you need a little more persuasion, may we tempt you?

Don't Miss:
Fun with your favorite actors, friends, & Firehouse family!
Dancing to live music by our favorite, the R & B, Motown sounds of Legacy!
Fantastic food & drink with our popular wine & martini bar!

Auctioneer: Scott Wichmann, actor/entertainer extraordinaire!

Auction items include:
- One-week time-share in Hawaii
- Vacations at Wintergreen, Sandbridge, & "Da Rivah"
- Fashion Makeover on "The Avenues"
- Firehouse party for 100, with DJ, food, and drink
- Night of fine art, wine, and theatre for ten friends
- Dinner for two at fantastic restaurants
...And More!

All proceeds benefit The Firehouse Theatre Project.
Only a few tickets left - so don't wait!

Get Your Tickets Here!
Two price points, three ways to buy!

Singles: $100
Save BIG on a pair: $150 for two!

To Purchase:
Click here to purchase tickets online, or
Call the Firehouse at 804-355-2001, or
Mail a check to the address below, payable to The Firehouse Theatre Fire Ball Gala.
Don't forget to indicate the # of tickets in the memo!

A portion of the ticket price is tax-deductible.
Out of town? Car broke down? We know you'd be with us if you could. Don't enable those guilty feelings - just click here to support us and feel better already!

Theatrical Black Tie Attire! Be There!

The Firehouse Theatre Project
1609 W. Broad Street
Richmond, VA 23220
Photo credits: Image of Scott Wichmann, um, borrowed from his My Space Page. Fire Ball 2007 photos courtesy the Firehouse Theatre staff.

About The Firehouse Theatre Project

The Firehouse Theatre Project, a non-profit theatre company, was founded in 1993 to present important contemporary American theatre pieces with an emphasis on plays not previously produced in the metropolitan Richmond area. The company, which is under the direction of Carol Piersol, Founding Artistic Director, is housed in the former Richmond Fire Station #10 at 1609 West Broad Street. For more information about the Firehouse Theatre Project's 2007/08 season, please call 804.355.2001 or visit the website.

The Firehouse Theatre Project
Stacie Birchett
Public Relations and Marketing
phone: 804-355-2001


The Goat: Or Why Is Harry On TeeVee?

The billion-eyed audience can check out me talking about Blue Shingles in a Mark Holmberg segment (click the thumbnail underneath the train, "White Goat") about its current occupant on WTVR-Channel 6 ("The South's First Television Station," don't you know--in that clip, push toward the end to see the title card).

Mark's piece aired this past Monday at 11 p.m. and Tuesady evening, at 5:30, though you can just go to the link above. Yes, he's interviewing me at, surprise, the New York Deli where I arrived thinking that he'd be there with a pad and pen, but he doesn't do that anymore, which I full well knew but didn't think to remember--and so he caught me live in my native habitat.

Mark was kind to give True Richmond Stories a little nod (soon out in its second printing in finer bookstores, and Barnes & and

How it happened was that Mark was pursuing this tale about a wild goat roaming around in the 14 acres of woods and rocks that once formed the estate of Blue Shingles. The three-tory, five bedroom house stood from 1922 to 1968 an
d was designed with Mediterranean flair by Otis K. Asbury (1905-1959). Asbury gave the house blue copper shingles.

Alma W. Evans, wife of Richmond coal and fuels executive Lorenzo Sibert Evans, in 1922 purchased the 14 and a half acres from Richmond News Leader publisher John Stewart Bryan. The Evanses built their five-bedroom, three-story river view Mediterranean-styled dream house at the end of a curvy road leading from the end of present day Blue Shingles Lane, off Butte Lane. The Evanses had a son, Lorenzo Jr. and Mary Anne.

The property was then bordered on its eastern edge by the arched buttresses of the Atlantic Coast Line/Belt Line Rail and a stretch of the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac railroad. Douglasdale Road and the Powhite Parkway bridge later framed the grounds.

Alma Evans employed the expertise of landscape artchitect Charles Gillette to create formal gardens to the east and southeast of the house, and terraces were around back and facing west. (The Library of Virginia keeps Blue Shingles drawings and plans in their archives.) The view
would've been marvelous of the river and surrounding countryside from the Blue Shingles plesaure gardens. One can envision the cocktail parties Lorenzo Evans held in connection to his business, the tinkle of ice cubes in whisky glasses and Big Band music playing at background level on the hi-fi.

Asbury ultimately designed at least five houses on West Franklin Street and Monument Avenue. A 1926 Blue Shingles cousin designed for the Raab family is at 2502 Monument Avenue.

You can go to the Monument Avenue Internet Repository, stored here, thanks to the Elams, but go to MAIR and search by block. Which is where the image is from.

Asbury, son of a North Carolina architect, worked as a draftsman in Charles K. Bryant's (c.1872-1935) high end Richmond firm for at least five years. After that partnership split apart, Asbury set up shop with Herbert C. Whitehurst, the son of a prosperous Richmond manufacturer of sash, blinds and doors. Asbury went out on his own after World War I. Most of his known surviving examples are in the Colonial Revival and Tudor Revival mode and resemble early Duncan Lee, a renowned niche-style architect of the day.

Asbury would’ve been a known quantity when 48-year-old Evans commissioned him to build his Blue Shingles.

The first floor public rooms of Blue Shingles were decorated in handsome walnut paneling, the drawing room in English style with a ceiling of parquet plaster and the dining room was executed with a French flair. The Evans family crest, on a stone plaque in the foyer, greeted visitors. The main staircase steps were made of railroad ties and adorned by wrought iron railings and balusters. Five bedrooms and four baths, dressing rooms and large closets rounded out the second story. The third floor was plastered, with cedar room storage space, servants’ room and bath. A recreation room dominated the full basement that also contained the laundry, connected by chutes to the upper floors, and a bath, “most convenient for yardman or chaffeur,” as described in a period real estate publication.

Two tragic events occurred on or near Blue Shingles.

On Easter Sunday, 1955, World War II and Korean War veteran Lorenzo Evans Jr. stood beside the ceremonial entrance fountain and shot himself. On December 7, a military training jet crashed into the nearby posh neighborhood of Windsor Farms and destroyed two houses. An audio clip of veteran WRVA radio correspondent Alden Aaroe reporting the event is here.

One long-time resident recalled to me that rescue workers in search of the pilot found what was left of him below Blue Shingles. He recalled the incident to me as a collision.

"We were there when the two fighter planes crashed, one landed in Windsor Farms and the other in the water behind Blue Shingles. They [the rescue workers] didn’t know how to get around. The overflow from the springhouse deteriorated and eroded the land that created this backwater, off the canal and river; it was tricky to get in and out. But us, playing around there, we’d done it at night and could guide them.

Kind of a valley where Rothesay [Circle] came around and Blue Shingles took up [195/Downtown Expressway didn't exist then] and they didn’t know how to get down there. The rescue people were following the eastern plane, they were following it and they got to Blue Shingles, and the house was closed so there was nobody to tell them how to get down there.

We were up playing, we were just hanging out, we were back above the Blue Shingles property at Butte and Sunset. We watched that plane crash, and you heard the emergency vehicles.

I took them down…We used to catch frogs down there. I’ve never heard an explanation of how it happened. That was the final flight of the P-47 squadron that was leaving the airbase there, it was a quite a hassle, they could’ve gotten through several ways, but I got them down there. I recovered a boot with a foot in it. I didn’t get close to it once I saw it, I backed up and pointed. Best we could see, he [the pilot] tried heading for the river and didn’t make it."

(I'm still not certain about how one version of events squares with this memory, but that's another project. )

Update 2009: The gentleman in question confabulated two crashes that occurred a decade apart over Windsor Farms. A Sept. 1, 1945 crash dropped a plane into field near the 200 block of Canterbury Road, killing the pilot. This is the origin of the gruesome foot-in-a-boot story. I've since noted that story elsewhere. On Dec. 7, 1955, two jets nicked each other mid-air and one spiraled into Windsor Farms. I wrote about it here.

By the 1950s an assessor noted that, " The Blue Shingles have now turned green."

In happier times, the Evanses enjoyd parties and held Christmas open houses. But in the latter years, the riverfront terraces were favored by neighborhood youths. A long-time resident reminisces, “You’d sit out there in the evening with your friends, pass around the grapefruit juice and gin and at night a cold breeze would blow up from the river. Great to snuggle up under a blanket with somebody you knew well. Or somebody you wanted to know well.”

Evans Sr. died in 1958, aged 83, and was cremated in Washington D.C. Alma remained at Blue Shingles until age overtook her. In late December 1966 daughter Mary Ann Evans Steele sold the house to quarry magnate C. Merle Luck Sr. Luck and his wife had restored the Bellona Arsenal in Chesterfield where they lived from 1941 to 1963. He envisioned luxury apartments along the bluff. Luck had none where Blue Shingles was concerned, though. Financing and zoning thwarted the plan.

Teenagers meanwhile claimed Blue Shingles as a party house. A 1967 Times-Dispatch article described every window broken, the walnut paneling stripped out, the Evans crest in the foyer removed, the French doors bare, the formal gardens dug up. Mary Ann Steele said, “The vandalism has been the most vicious thing I have ever heard of. There is nothing there they have not wrecked.”

Blue Shingles wasn't old enough to gain historic recognition. By 1968, the hasty departure was well underway of many whites and blacks from Richmond's established neighorhoods into the suburbs. The Carillon neighborhood was integrated, and quite proud of the fact. A ravaged, decrepit old mansion, set at the end of an isolated road, didn't attract any takers. The name of Otis K. Asbury didn't cause preservationists to leap to the cause of saving what was, by then, a ruined hulk of a house, no matter the grandness of the view.

After the 1968 demolition numerous unsuccessful ventures attempting to build high rent high rises met strident neighborhood objections. An intense slope that makes approximately two-thirds of the property undevelopable has thus far protected the land. Further, the one road into Blue Shingles, which snow storms (back when Richmond experienced such phenomenons) would block, makes the land difficult to access. Contemporary zoning requires a road for emergency vehicles that would have to come off Douglasdale Road, and the community doesn't approve of such an effort.

Thus, goats and an occasional stray bear today make Blue Shingles their home.


Southern Man of Mystery:
Harry Gives Good Talking Head

Not long ago I was asked by videographer producer Ryan Eubank to participate in a documentary he was making as part of a series of biographies for Henrico County publc access cable. You can read about Ryan, but scroll down, here.

The result, Southern Man of Mystery: Edgar Allan Poe is pretty cool. I'm one of several, all far more knowledgable than me, but apparently I give good talking head.

The airdates are as follows: on the EVEN HOURS: Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday, the week of March 31st. It will air on Channel 17 on Comcast in Henrico, and on Verizon channel 39 throughout the metro area.

The image here was one of at least two taken by William Abbott Pratt--himself a curious cat--right here in Richmond several weeks before he left town for the last time. As I say in the piece, Baltimore has his body, Richmond has his soul.

I wrote of the daguerreotype session between Poe and Pratt in 2oo7:

"One morning in late September 1849, an impatient Edgar Allan Poe sits for his portrait under the second floor skylight of daguerreotypist William Abbott Pratt’s Gothic-style studio. Between them, Poe and Pratt are perhaps Richmond’s best-known eccentrics.

Pratt knows Poe as Richmond’s most famous artist son. He’d interrupted Poe as the writer passed by his studio while bustling down Main Street intent on other business.

British-born Pratt opened the Virginia Skylight Daguerrean Gallery in 1846, seven years after the daguerreotype was introduced into the United States. He took an estimated 35,000 images throughout his career.

Poe is 40 and worn out. His stay in Richmond began in mid-June when he was on verging on a mental collapse, but the town he considers home greeted him like a proto-alt-indie rocker. He is seeing how that in the place he considers home his writings matter.

He’s been busy lecturing, writing, trying to squire a former teen-aged flame now a widow on Church Hill, Elmira Royster Shelton, and attending temperance meetings. He told Pratt she wasn’t dressed for a portrait, but daguerrean process fascinated Poe.

The tiny four-by-three inch Pratt pictures show a gaunt, haggard Poe with sunken and bagged eyes. He’s plopped down upon the portrait chair. The first image shows a sprig of evergreen in his vest lapel, (Did Pratt stick it on him for esthetic effect? Was it Poe’s idea? In the second image, it’s gone.). His “steamboat” collar is turned down, his cravat untied – he looks uncomfortable and just off the humid street. His hair is disarrayed and a big handkerchief thrust into his waistcoat; perhaps, one historian suggests, hiding threadbare material. By the second image, his hair is pushed up, his vest straightened out.

Contemporaries consider Poe proper and almost courtly in manner. Poe is amusing Pratt and trying to be polite. But here, he’s eager to be on his way.

The second pose has an enforced calmness. Still, whether it is the turn of his face, the fullness of his lower lip and the shadow of his moustache (which he didn’t grow until he was 38), Poe may be making a weary attempt to force a slight smile. Perhaps Pratt kept up some banter to ease Poe’s impatience.

The images would’ve taken 15 minutes to develop, but Poe didn’t tarry, and left them behind – perhaps because he couldn’t afford them at the time, and knew he’d soon return for them.

But on Oct. 7, 1849 he died in Baltimore. There are some 24 theories about what killed him.
The original images (they were copied) became known for later owners, the “Thompson” for John R. Thompson, an exploitive Poe lecturer, and the “Traylor.” Elmira Shelton purchased one of the images from Pratt and kept it until her 1888 demise; then it passed to Robert Traylor, a Richmond Poe aficionado. Around 1900 a botched cleaning attempt made the little picture more spooky but less detailed.

About a decade after taking Poe’s picture he built Richmond’s strangest house, sited upon Gamble’s Hill, one of the city’s best vistas. Besides Thomas Jefferson's Virginia State Capitol, Pratt’s Castle became among the most photographed building in Richmond.

The place was built of rolled sheet iron, perhaps from Tredegar Iron Works at Gamble's foot, that Pratt scored and painted to resemble stone. The foundation was of James River granite. The rooms were of irregular shape and ecclectic design. Pratt installed stained glass windows he purchased in England. There was a dungeon--that is, a coal or wine cellar--and at least one hidden room and a secret staircase. While not the House of Usher, Pratt's Castle and his tagential connection to Poe caused, in urban myth fashion, stories to sprout that Poe had visited and written stories while staying there.

Pratt's studio building was consumed by the 1865 Evacuation Fire. Pratt died in Waynesboro in 1878. The castle was taken down in 1958 for Ethyl [NewMarket] Corporation’s headquarters. A plaque promised by the company to mark the site of Pratt's was never installed and the whereabouts of the stained glass windows are unknown.

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At 6:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for the article on Blue Shingles. I have a 1947 copy of Historic Virginia, published by Roy Wheeler Realty Co. of Charlottesville that has the same write-up & picture that you included. I had wondered if it still survived; too bad...very impressive home. Next time I'm at LVA, I'll study the plans. Sincerely, Bill Inge- Architectural Historian, Sargeant Memorial Room, Norfolk

At 11:14 AM, Blogger HEK said...

Bill, thanks for dropping by this lonesome corner of the Interwebs. From my site counter, I know that there's still a little curiosity out there about Blue Shingles, Pratt's Castle and Gamble's Hill. -- HEK

At 10:42 PM, Blogger JJ said...


I am fascinated by this post. I am a lineal descendant of Mr. Pratt's currently attending Mr. jefferson's University. I have been digging through the archives at UVA but most of the information here pertains to Pratt at UVA and his move to Waynesboro. He is my great^4 grandfather. I was curious what sorts of information you have on Pratt in Richmond and where a good place to start looking might be.


At 7:53 AM, Blogger HEK said...

JJ: Listen, if you'd like, please e-mail me at or I wrote a feature about Pratt's Castle some years ago and could copy or scan it and send it to you.

But without your e-mail I cannot. Drop me a line, I'd like to speak with you. --HEK


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